The Bookie’s Runner
It’s not that I doubted the reviews. People whose opinion I respect have raved about this book. It’s not that I doubted Brendan’s talent – in one week I’ve consumed his short stories and family saga and been deeply moved by both.
It’s just that I couldn’t begin to imagine what one could write about such an ordinary dad. Brendan admits it, more than once ‘he was just my dad.’ Not a hero. Not unusual in any obvious way, ‘just my dad.’ So I found it hard to imagine what could make any book on the subject as good as people have said about it. That’s why I didn’t read it sooner. I should have. I started reading. I was choked by paragraph 2. Lesson 2 learned. It’s not just what he writes about it’s how he writes. It’s brave, honest, open, poignant and compelling
By Chapter Two I already knew I had to give this my full and undivided attention – and expect to cry. And I don’t do crying. Especially not about fathers. Having long since had mine abandon me, I tend not to think that fathers can be heroes.
But this is Brendan’s story, not mine. And a fifteen year old Brendan narrates his thoughts on the longest bus journey on earth – his first day back at High School after the death of his father. Each chapter is another story in the course of his dad’s life and it works so well because the adult holds himself in the background, while offering a subtle awareness of the depths beyond the boy’s immediate grief. He shares the reflexive stance of the reader and draws our empathy not only to the boy but to the man the boy became. It is man and boy telling the story.
The 15 year old feels raw emotion and unbridled hatred for a world which has treated his dad so unfairly and everyone (including himself) who has ever wronged his dad are the target of his furious grief. The tribute to the adult is that he has channeled this into a story which is a true tribute to his father.
F.Scott Fitzgerald said ‘write because you have something to say, not because you want to say something.' Gisby wants to say something – boy and man – but he also HAS something to say. Something very important about human relationships and interaction. About truth and lies and trust and failure and love.
The boy experiences hopelessness and vows never to be as gentle and soft as his dad.
‘Who can you trust?’ is his dad’s poignant question and Gisby learns that you can’t trust anyone –except your dad. And without him, you have nothing left. I empathise with that feeling.
Structurally the work is understated but very clever. One doesn’t find out the full symbolic importance of the bus journey until well into the book and it hits one as yet another sideswipe. You want to go and wring the neck of the woman who cheats them at their gardening job. You want to hunt down the Bookie who cheats them (I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler) It isn’t though because the episodes themselves, well written, remembered with the rawness of real emotion, are the stepping stones towards the greatness of the story which is a picture of how ‘ordinary’ people become what they are. The hopelessness. The fierce determination not to be cheated or lied to or tramped on are vivid and real. After finishing this I have the deepest respect for Brendan Gisby. I mourn for the boy he was and the dad he lost and I hope that he got the life he deserved. He certainly deserves the utmost respect for being able to tell this story with the power of pain and vividness of emotion and yet all of that is controlled, constructed and managed with a level of reflective awareness that is little short of incredible.
Reviewed by Cally Phillips
A couple of years on and it’s still a book that haunts me. I’ve read most of Brendan’s output since then (I think I may have missed ‘Thompson’s Lucky Star ‘out which I should remedy soon) but this is the benchmark for me. If you read ‘The Bookie’s Runner’ and aren’t moved by it, his writing may not be for you. If you’ve read his longer fiction and wondered ‘why’ at any point (which you may well, his work is multi layered and complex both in its narrative and it’s emotional heart) then you should really read ‘The Bookie’s Runner,’ to get an understanding of the man behind the author behind the narrator in works such as ‘The Preservation of the Olive Branch.’ ‘The Bookies Runner’ is a great way into the work of Brendan Gisby – as if his plethora of short stories wasn’t enough – and if you’ve read and enjoyed his short stories you will revel in this longer one. Brendan breaks conventions between fact and fiction – he writes with heart – and that’s how it should be read. His writing is generally as understated as his persona, but that does not mean it lacks depth. This is a man who, in my opinion, has singlehandedly done more to further the cause of modern Scots writing than anyone else alive today. And I don’t say that lightly. It’s an opinion I can and will defend and back up against any challengers!
‘The Bookie’s Runner’ is available as a Kindle ebook for just 99p or paperback for the ludicrously low price of £3.57. That’s the alert to the other thing that is special about Brendan Gisby – he wants people to read his books more than he wants to make money out of them.